- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

Even if they adore children and animals, potential buyers shopping for a new home don’t want to be distracted by children’s toys and clutter, smell unpleasant pet odors or notice clumps of animal hair on the furniture. Sellers with small children or pets might consider hiring an accredited professional stager (ASP) who can provide simple guidelines to help them redirect potential buyers’ focus to the home’s highlights as a welcoming, livable space.

When Jennifer Ponsart put her three-story, four-bedroom house in Manassas on the market last summer, she decided to work with an accredited stager to give her home a competitive edge.

She hired Deborah Gorham, a Realtor with Long & Foster in Reston with the ASP designation, to help her market the home, where she lived with her two children, age 5 and 10, and two cats.

Though the house across the street lingered on the market for close to a year, Mrs. Ponsart’s house sold the day it was listed — and for her asking price of $512,000.

“I definitely feel that it sold because of staging,” she says.

While interior decorators infuse personality into a home and decorate forward, Dana Dickey, executive director of Interior Redesign Industry Specialists, based in Chicago, says stagers edit the property backward. Their goal is to depersonalize it and return it to the beauty it had when the owners first bought it.

“Realtors will tell you about location, location, location, but appearance is what you control,” Ms. Dickey says.

Homeowners with a large family, including many pets, may not recognize the disorder and accumulation of items in their homes. A stager can help them with a fresh perspective on how to rearrange, organize and get rid of unnecessary items.

“The homeowner often walks right by things they don’t see as clutter,” Ms. Dickey says. In a home with many young children, Ms. Dickey recommends that children prioritize which playthings are most important to them and pack up the rest.

Ms. Gorham says that rather than focusing on the children’s array of toys or the barking dog, the buyers must be able to visualize how the house will work for them.

To help her sellers achieve this perfect presentation of the home, Ms. Gorham meets with them, takes photos of each room from all angles and then discusses her findings and ideas on how to transform it into an “A+ home that the buyer has to have.”

For an average cost of less than $2,000, she says, she ensures that every item in the house that could possibly be an objection to any buyer will be noted and addressed.

Though the focus is on marketing the home to the global buyer, Ms. Gorham says a good stager knows the demographics and can calculate when a property should be staged to sell to buyers with one or more children, as in the case of Mrs. Ponsart’s home.

“You have to know who your target audience is,” Mrs. Gorham says. Based on the fact that she knew the Ponsarts’ large home, in a cul-de-sac near a school, probably would sell to a family, she staged it as a warm, relaxing setting, focusing on its positive aspects.

The recreation room was presented as the central gathering area, with a board game displayed on the table to help the buyers envision the family playing Monopoly together. Though all toys did not have to be put out of sight in this scenario, everything still had to be tidy and arranged.

For example, a chain hanging from the wall stored all stuffed animals, and all board games in the closet were neatly stacked. To appeal to the adults’ sense of fun, Ms. Gorham set up a poker table with cards and snacks, and a vending machine.

“It was an atmosphere that both kids or adults could feel comfortable in,” Ms. Gorham says.

There was no issue with pet odors, as the Ponsarts had had the house freshly painted and had replaced the carpeting, but Mrs. Ponsart said that keeping the litter box clean at all times was a top priority.

“You don’t want someone to smell it, and you certainly don’t want to have buyers walk in and feel cat litter crunching under their feet,” she says.

Cynthia Fortin, a master accredited staging professional with Cynthia Anne Interiors, based in St. Mary’s County, Md., says there are definite steps sellers with pets and children must take before putting a home on the market.

She suggests that they detach themselves from the process and not take it personally when the stager provides tips and feedback.

“When the house goes on the market, it’s a product to be marketed,” she says.

For example, Mrs. Fortin says sellers should not be upset if their real estate agent or stager is concerned about how their dog could scare buyers, especially if the pet is an aggressive animal.

“This is a real fear for many people and could limit your showing,” she says.

If the sellers don’t have a place to put their dog while showing the property, she suggests they consider pet day care while the house is on display. Mrs. Fortin says pet toys should be kept to a minimum and pet dishes should be kept in an inconspicuous place. If pets have damaged doors, carpets or other areas in the home from scratching or chewing, these areas should be repaired.

Most important, she recommends that sellers use a safe enzyme spray that erases pet smells or use natural aromas such as cookies baking.

She remembers walking into a house where the sellers used scented candles in an obvious attempt to cover up the odors.

“The sellers had cats,” Mrs. Fortin says. “The buyer asked what smells the sellers were trying to mask.”

Sellers also need to clean up any odors associated with children. For example, if the teenage son’s room smells like a sweaty gym, address it.

In addition to the 3 D’s — decluttering, deodorizing, and depersonalizing — Mrs. Fortin says color can have a dramatic impact and help buyers connect to your house.

Pulling colors together and having them highlighted is a very effective technique for helping the buyers focus on the important elements in each room. During a consultation for a home featuring a baby’s room painted in pastels, she recommended removing the bright, primary colored items and opening the window to let in the light and focus on the view.

“The colors were peaceful and coordinated so that the eye could travel quietly around the room and focus on the major selling feature, the view,” Mrs. Fortin says.

Lyric Turner, an accredited stager and principal stager with Red House Staging and Interiors in the District, says she works extensively with clients preparing to sell condominiums. In situations with tight spaces, it’s even more critical to present the home as an open, ample space.

“It’s about showing them a unique layout,” Ms. Turner says. “It might make sellers say, ‘Oh, I never thought of putting my bed that way.’ ”

Ms. Turner has worked with families who want to stage their home but have a challenging time making the required changes. She says she worked with a family who had half of the living room cordoned off into an area for their baby, while the living room furniture was crammed into the other side.

She pointed out to the sellers that this arrangement made the play area and the lack of space the focus, so she suggested the sellers pack up some of the items in the child’s area and show the room differently.

“I know how having a baby can take over your house,” Ms. Turner says. “It’s hard, but it comes down to the decision: How fast do you want to sell your place?”

Sellers can consider speeding up the process when working with a stager by hiring a professional cleaning service.

Remo Molino, president and owner of the Maids Home Services, based in Frederick, Md., says his company has seen a 300 percent increase in first-time requests for cleaning since 2004, and 50 percent of that business is from homeowners putting their home up for sale. Staging homes for sale represents the largest growth area in his cleaning business.

These customers usually opt for an initial deep cleaning and then have the service come in on a weekly basis to maintain the level of cleanliness until the home is sold, he says.

“This is very important in homes with pets and children,” Mr. Molino says. “We can remove pet hair and dander, the stuff that falls on the kitchen floor, the toothpaste splashed on the mirrors — your daily activities.” The company can also help with repairs and maintenance, such as restoring granite counters.

In addition to putting a fresh face on homes up for sale, Mr. Molino says Maids Home Services cleans models for Drees Homes Co.

Mr. Molino says homeowners could learn a lot about staging and its effectiveness by touring a model home, where the house is meticulously clean, fresh-smelling and brightly lit.

“To sell, people need to make sure their home is staged properly,” he says. “Home builders have been doing it forever.”

David Kiser, immediate past president of the Association of Residential Cleaning Services International, based in Atlanta, says that the type of cleaning families with pets need to do as part of staging their home is similar to a thorough spring cleaning. The idea is to get rid of buildup and focus on areas that are normally ignored but need to be examined.

He says he remembers a job on which his crew pulled out the refrigerator to wipe up behind it and found that an ice pop had fallen behind the appliance and was a sticky mess that was starting to ooze into the kitchen.

In addition to cleaning, he says working with clients to stage their home also can involve coaching them on where to place certain items.

“We worked with a woman trying to sell her home who had a diaper pail right in the foyer,” he says. He worked with her and gave her suggestions on where to place the receptacle so that it would not distract buyers.

Mr. Kiser says savvy sellers should offer a professional cleaning as part of their contract to make their home stand out among the competition.

“In this market, if you don’t make a good first impression, you may not get another bite for three months,” he says.

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